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June 23, 1996

Schools and Housing

Dear Neighbors:

First off, I'd like to shamelessly beg you to help me find new subscribers. I'll wallow with all the reasons why when I'm in a self-pitying mood, but trust me, the survival of this newsletter depends on a constant inflow on new subscribers. And the best way to find new readers is for you to pass it along and encourage email buddies to subscribe.

The Gentle Accounting Office issued a couple of reports last month that are relevant to the District of Confusion. First, they did a dust-up of private schools managing local schools, something Super-Intended Franklin Smith has been advocating. Once must know how to read a GAO report, since every adjective and forceful verb is hunted and neutralized until a report on the Holocaust reads the same as an inventory of bed sheets at a military hospital. The best place to look for "real" information is in the footnotes. The 30 odd (and I mean odd in all its senses) reviewers each report is subjected to, I found, don't pay attention to the footnotes, so writers tend to stick their good stuff in there.

The reports cited below are available on the web. I gave the URL address. If you'd like a leather-bound copy, call 202.512.6000 and request by report number. Copies are free.

Private Management of Public Schools: Early Experiences in Four School Districts

GAO/HEHS-96-3 Apr. 19 (75 pages).

Troubled by childrens' low test scores, as well as their low attendance, promotion, and graduation rates, educators and parents have searched for ways to improve public education. School districts nationwide are experimenting with a range of reform options, one of which is private management of public schools. GAO reviewed the early experiences of school districts that contracted with private, for-profit companies to manage the public schools. GAO found that private firms hired to manage public schools in four school districts--Baltimore, Maryland; Dade County, Florida; Hartford, Connecticut; and Minneapolis, Minnesota--made changes that resulted in better attendance, better individual instruction, more computers, and facilities that were better maintained. However, student scores on standardized tests did not improve substantially.

[Comment: I haven't read the report yet, but dig in and find out why scores didn't improve substantially. The buzz is that the private organizations could never get their hands on the curriculum. The Post's story last week about substantial improvement in Union City schools pointed to curriculum as the key--not the influx of Bell Atlantic computers and such. jeff]

Fannie Mae is also a hot button issue in the District, since the company earns oodles of money and pays no local taxes. The paragraph below won't tell you what GAO found but press reports about this report sparked a big debate on the op-ed pages of the newspapers. Essentially, Fannie Mae is doing really well achieving its mission of providing liquidity in the housing market. But it's doing well because it gets big government tax breaks and because Uncle Sugar implicitly backs up their loans. Fannie Mae argues that they do better because they are smarter, but if Congress took away their subsidies, they would become dumber.

Here's the conundrum. If Fannie Mae paid taxes to the District, it would lose part of its edge over other housing financial institutions. Thus, Congress would be injuring (though not killing) the cow that lays to the golden egg. In addition, Fannie Mae supports home ownership, which is more likely to help suburban areas that are picking off urban (District) residents. Fannie Mae's suburban focus is what really should get folks in a snit. What to do? Well, most cities--especially the District--are facing infrastructure disasters and will need a lot of money to fix all that stuff underground. Fannie Mae can alter its mission and address the urban challenge--or Congress could pull out the rug and let it (and it's stockholders) fend for itself.

Housing Enterprises: Potential Impacts of Severing Government Sponsorship

GAO/GGD-96-120 May 13 (106 pages).

The Federal National Mortgage Association (Fannie Mae) and the Federal Home Loan Mortgage Corporation (Freddie Mac) are government-sponsored enterprises with $1.4 trillion in combined obligations as of the end of 1995. In response to growing concern over the potential risk that these obligations pose to taxpayers and questions about their continued need for government-sponsored status, GAO studied the effects of repealing the charters of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, eliminating any federal sponsorship, and allowing them to operate as fully private corporations. This report assesses the effects of privatization on (1) the enterprises; (2) residential mortgage markets in general; and (3) housing finance, homeownership, and housing affordability for low- and moderate-income families and residents of underserved areas. GAO also identifies and discusses other policy options that Congress may want to consider to limit the enterprises' potential risk to taxpayers or increase their social benefits.


Jeffrey Itell


Sam Smith

Many years ago, long before neat laser wordprocessor copy, small presses ran on memeos, headline machines and rubber cement. From this, each month, would come Sam Smith's DC Gazette (nee Capitol East Gazette). It not only was a great read, but also a visual pleasure -- typos and all.

As Editor, Sam would take my typed on, scribbled on messes and patiently, help me figure out what I meant. It is a rare editor who can bring out a writer's thoughts without coloring them with his own. Sam did this for me and for many, many others.

He helped us argue both logically and forcefully and then helped us make it readable. All this while issuing a never ending string of one liners, asides and cigar smoke. Thanks Sam.

Carl Bergman



I am a Democrat and a Marine veteran, but I plan to support Carol Schwartz, a Republican, for an at-large seat on the District Council. The Post supported Schwartz in the last mayoral election when she ran against Mayor Barry. She has been on the Council before, and her three children graduated from D.C. public schools.

I watch the D.C. Council at work on TV. I am weary ad nauseum of the treatment of Kathy Patterson by various Council members. We need another voice.

Let us not overlook the fact that every day hundreds of children from the other wards cros over to attend school in Ward 3, including Mayor Barry's son, Christopher, at Wilson High School. A block away from my house, many Murch Elementary students are studying in trailers in the school yard, but their parents are very involved. They shovel snow, plant flowers, and support many necessary projects to assist the teachers and administration. Many are single parents, too.

E.K. Penniman


I have a request (hope that this format/system are correct). Can anyone give me or direct me to information regarding magnet schools in the DC area? A colleague here in my office says that they don't exist, as such, that there are "community schools," which are supposed to offer people equivalent levels and types of instruction to residents in the vacinity of public schools. She also said, however, that there are special programs in schools in which parents have to get kids on waiting lists to enroll in such schools, similar to magnet schools. Does a list exist for such schools and/or programs? Are there eligibility requirements? Is there a number for DC Schools that might address these concerns? This is for another with whom I work, who has a pre-school aged child. Thanks again.




Andy Frank has it right when he describes the problems of the Van Ness/Forest Hills shopping strip and surroundings except for one item: The 3 Van Ness apartment buildings are not all rental units. Van Ness North, with its 450 apartments, is a co-op; VN East is a condominium. There are lots of us here who have a stake in the neighborhood and expect to stay around for a long time. What Andy didn't say, probably because he owns it, is that the arrival of Sirius Coffee is the best thing that's happened to the strip in years. Now I don't have to go to Cleveland Park to drink coffee, listen to music, buy beans, and generally enjoy the ambience. Thanks for taking a chance on the area, Andy.

Barbara Green


As a resident of Van Ness I must agree with Andrew Frank and his assessment of the area. There are good stores shops and cafes, his included. Most of all his observations about UDC are right on the nose. I walk through campus every day and have always wondered about plays outdoor concerts or sports events. I would have never known about the amphitheater if I hadn't walked around. I rarely, if ever, see anything announced except for a band or specialty drink night at some bar in another part of DC. There is serious potential at UDC for neighborhood involvement. However, with the threat of budget cuts and it's poor reputation in the first place and lousy upkeep, nobody seems to want to go near the place. God forbid if we must turn to the DC government to re-vitalize the university. There are a lot of embassies and consulates located nearby not to mention Howard law school but none ever make use of the "University" Do they? Van ness is a great place to live, I hope that UDC can be the catalyst for revitalization of the Connecticut corridor however it looks like it will be a long way off. Until then we will rely on the merchants and patronize them as much as possible.

David Hunter


The June issue of TheInTowner (I didn't make that up--the title is indeed done in AllWordsCrammedTogether style) has articles on both the farmer's market (Crestar bank) and Columbia Rd. vendors (between 16th and 18th) situations. In neither case has a final decision been made. TheInTowner can be found at a variety of locations near Dupont Circle and neighboring areas.

Jim Kingdon


Cable TV

Because of interference from the transmittors for Channel 4 and 5 (NBC, Fox), you often get bad reception on these channels. That means you have to watch the Baltimore stations instead. That's usually fine except for things like the news. DC Cable also does not give us Comedy Central. There are all these new satellite options, but you have to switch to a regular antenna to get the networks because they are not allowed to broadcast local network stuff.

Peter Luger


Count me as a very dissatisfied former customer of DC Cable. I used to get extended basic service from them, which came out to nearly $40 per month without any pay channels. Their "service" included a protracted debate with them over their insistance that I owed them for six months of Showtime, and a second protracted debate that I owed them $250 for the cable box they picked up when I cut off the service. They ended up sending me repeated dunning notices for money I didn't owe, each one of which became ruder and ruder despite my responding in writing each time.

My recommendation -- I don't have it, but I've been very impressed with DirecTV offerings and pricing. And Primestar offers to lease you the dish as part of the monthly fee, so with them you don't have to pay for the DSS dish up front.

And, for the broke or television-impaired, CNN provides most of its news through the web ( and C-SPAN now provides full audio over the Web via RealAudio ( [or c-span, can't remember]).

Jeff Porten



Fletcher's, Thompson's, and Jack's boathouses all afford river-only access on fairly urbanized portions of the river. When the C&O Canal is re-watered in the D.C. area, I presume Fletcher's will resume providing canal access. In the meantime, don't overlook Swain's boathouse (at the end of Swain's Lock Road, off River Road past Potomac Village), which serves a nice, quiet section of the canal. Also, Springriver in Rockville is a good place to rent a whitewater-capable boat for a weekend's use on the waterway of your choice.

Lorie Leavy


Frying Pan Into Fire

For the curious, my bailout from DC is going fine so far. Put a contract on a 3 BR house ($89K) the first day. Really cute except for the obligatory giant mutant cactus that scared my kid. (As all non-hermits know, I am now ensconced in sunny Arizona. The five-day forecast in the paper is five little yellow suns. If you don't like the weather, they say, wait six months. If you don't take a water bottle to walk to the store, you die. Pretty simple.)

But, and here's the really thoughtful part, to ease the transition, the governor is under indictment here! Nice of them to make me feel at home, wasn't it?




Volunteers Needed! Our Lady Queen of the Americas Church seeks native English-speaking volunteers to teach English to mostly Hispanic adults for one night a week for two hours or for three hours on Saturday or Sunday morning or afternoon. Spanish is not required, and training will be provided. Also needed are native Spanish speakers to teach literacy, elementary math, science, and social studies in Spanish. The Church is located within walking distance of Dupont Circle Metro Station (2200 California St., N.W.). Call 202.387.2222.

I taught a class for the first time this spring & plan to do it again... I'd be happy to answer questions about the work involved, etc.

To volunteer, please call the phone number above (Be prepared for an answering machine - Pilar, who runs the program, is usually doing 4-5 things at once).

Beth Johnson

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